Climate Change Threatens U.S. Energy Systems

Report Identifies Vulnerabilities to Extreme Weather, Calls for Action

04-12-2011 // Tony Iallonardo
Rail Road Flooding

Japan’s natural disaster and ensuing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear facility may serve as a wake-up call for Americans that our own energy infrastructure is also susceptible. A new National Wildlife Federation report examines how climate change is increasing the incidence of extreme weather and threatening the nation’s energy infrastructure, economy, and national security. Extreme weather events already cost the country $17 billion a year on average, the report says, and those costs are likely to rise as the nation faces more severe hurricanes, drought, heat waves and storms.

While there is no way to prevent earthquakes and tsunamis, as witnessed in Japan, the nation can avoid the worst consequences of climate change by reducing carbon pollution and taking steps to prepare for anticipated impacts. However, far too little is being done to make the energy system more resilient and secure, the report warns.

“Our hospitals, homes, and economy depend on an energy infrastructure that will be increasingly disrupted by extreme weather events related to climate change,” said Amanda Staudt, Ph.D., NWF climate scientist and author of the report More Extreme Weather and the U.S. Energy Infrastructure. “Now is the time for American innovation to rethink how we produce and distribute energy in a more resilient way.”

The country’s national security requires energy security, says NWF’s report, echoing several earlier military studies. For example, the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board in a 2009 report concluded that “fossil fuels, as well as the nation’s fragile electricity grid, pose significant security threats to the country as a whole and the military in particular.”

“Irresponsible energy choices like deepwater drilling coupled with the droughts and famines caused by climate change are a recipe for national security threats,” said Michael Breen, vice president of the Truman National Security Project. “The nation must transition to more efficient, low-carbon, energy sources and a less vulnerable infrastructure.”

Among the new report’s key findings: 

  • Major weather-related power outages are becoming more common;
  • Oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf region is at risk as hurricanes and tropical storms intensify;
  • Electricity generation in the Southwest will be limited by water shortages and more extreme heat; and
  • Flooding will disrupt coal transport in the Midwest and Northeast.

"This report underscores that extreme weather, whether extreme drought or heat, is fast becoming the business norm for electric utilities operating in the West, Southwest and Southeast U.S.," said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, an investor sustainability group based in Boston. "Utilities that require enormous amounts of water to run their power plants are especially vulnerable to drier and warmer conditions - a point that has not been lost on investors. Investors filed a record number of shareholder resolutions with utilities this year demanding answers on how they are managing this issue."

The report recommends that the nation --

  • Conduct a detailed national climate vulnerability assessment of the energy industry;
  • Develop plans for the energy industry to adapt to climate change and address vulnerabilities;
  • Design, strategically locate, and invest in more resilient, less-polluting, less water-dependent energy systems, such as appropriately-sited offshore wind and distributed photovoltaic solar systems; and
  • Improve the energy efficiency of buildings, vehicles, appliances and industrial processes.

“Recent events such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the accident at the Dai-ichi Fukushima nuclear power plant demonstrate that there are gaps in the safety management systems, and that not enough is being done to prepare for and respond to major accidents if they do occur,” said Dr. Ana Maria Cruz, Kyoto University’s Disaster Prevention Research Institute professor.

NWF has issued a series of reports examining the perils of climate change, from more extreme allergy seasons, to more severe winter weather and heat waves and beyond. Each of these changes exacts a cost on the nation’s economy, health systems, and wildlife.

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